Sunday Scripture: Third Sunday of Easter (YEAR C)



Welcome to this, the thirty-eigth of my reflections on the theology of the Sunday readings at Mass.

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog. I sincerely hope that this reflection will inspire you. You might find that it answers a few questions you may have, but most of all I hope that it will show you how fantastic Sacred Scripture is and perhaps enable you to share some of my love and passion for the Bible as you begin to comprehend how layered and multi-faceted it is, and what a carefully considered part of the Mass the readings are.

If you want to know how these posts came about, please read my first post in this series here.

I would like to think this regular blog would be a great help to anyone who reads at Mass, to enable them to foster a deeper understanding of the message they are trying to impart to the congregation.

There are several different ways to read this post. I would suggest the first thing to do is to look at the relevant readings. You might then want to look at the specific commentary for a particular reading. I post the same summary of the featured Biblical books each week, but at the end, under the subheading this week, you will usually find some commentary specific to each week. At the end I post a passage which attempts to draw all the readings together and understand the message.

My reflections are not definitive, but based on my study and perhaps authenticated by careful reference to the Biblical Commentaries and books I list at the bottom each week.

This Sunday the theme for the readings might be summed up as:

The Lord's Mission & Call.

Sunrise over the Sea of Galilee taken from my hotel room window in Tiberias, 20th November 2010


This week's readings are:
  • First Reading: Acts of the Apostle 5:27-32, 40-41.
  • Psalm 29: 2, 4-6, 11-13; Response: v. 2. 
  • Second Reading: Revelation 5: 11-14.
  • Gospel: John 21: 1-19.
First, a short preliminary survey of each of the books.

I will post the same, or similar prelims week on week, for each book as we encounter them, although I may add a little detail specific to each week's readings.

The Acts of the Apostles I have written a detailed exposition of Acts which you can read here.

This week: The subject of this Sunday's reading is the second confrontation between the Apostles and the Sanhedrin. It follows directly on from last week's reading (5:12-16), missing out the Apostle's arrest by the Sanhedrin and imprisonment. The Sanhedrin are frustrated when an angel of the Lord releases the Apostles so that they return to the Temple—a release all the more ironical because the Sadducees do not believe in angels! Thus the Sanhedrin session called to discuss the Apostles has to have them arrested again; and as with the arrest of Jesus (Luke 22:6), care has to be taken not to arouse the people (Acts 5:26).

Peter expresses his defiance of the high priest with a memorable line: "Obedience to God comes before obedience to men", indeed this is the foundational premise of civil disobedience. It insists that believers cannot submit to human authorities, institutions, and laws that contradict the laws of God (Wis 6:1-3; Mk 7:8-13). Part of the Christian mission is to bring civil legislation in line with divine law and, when this proves unsuccessful, to make a courageous stand in favour of the Gospel. In this episode, the mandate of Jesus to preach the Gospel (1:8) overrides the charge of the Sanhedrin to keep silent (4:18; CCC 450, 2242). Peter then gives a christological sermon as though he hoped to convert the Sanhedrin there and then! (5:30-32). The Apostles are beaten, but released and tacitly the Sanhedrin adopts the policy of leaving them alone as they continue every day to preach Christ publicly and privately. For their part, the Apostles remember the blessings in store for those who suffer like Jesus (Mt 5:10-12). This joyous response to persecution and affliction resonates throughout the New Testament writings (Jn 16:33; Rom 5:3; Jas 1:2; 1 Pet 2:19-21).

Psalms is the Bible's manual of inspired song and prayer. The collection of 150 Psalms represents the culmination of a long tradition that extends across almost the full span of the history of ancient Israel, from the Exodus (c. 1280 B.C.) until the last centuries of the Old Testament era (c. 200 B.C.). In Hebrew the canon of the Bible is called the TNK or Tanakh, which consists of Torah (teaching), Nevi'im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (writings)—thus TaNaKh. Psalms makes up the first of the writings in the Hebrew text. One of the most powerful things we know about the Psalms is that this is how Jesus Himself prayed.

The Book of Revelation is the last book of the canonical New Testament even though II Peter was the last book to be composed. It was written by John (1:1, 4, 9; 22:8) an exile on the island of Patmos (1:9) one of the northernmost islands of the Dodecanese group. There is an array of ancient authors who offer testimony that this is John the son of Zebedee (Mk 3:17). It is the only book of its kind in the New Testament: a work of Christian prophecy that has much in common with the prophetic books of the Old Testament. Yet it is also an apocalyptic book with clear similarities to Jewish religious writings called apocalypses, which date from the same contemporary period. Dominated as it is by apocalyptic and prophetic symbolism, the book of Revelation is notoriously difficult to interpret. Even St. jerome the most learned Biblical scholar in the early Church was compelled to admit that it "has as many mysteries as words" (Letters 53, 8). We need to take an integrative view of Revelation which recognises that the presence of multiple themes and perspectives which compliment one another serves to add richness and depth to the book. Christianity's struggle with the mighty Roman Empire is certainly part of the picture, as are the spiritual challenges to faith and fidelity that confront believers bombarded by the claims of the world. In this context, one must accept that Revelation offers a message of ultimate hope that looks ahead to the consummation of history and the heavenly glorification of the saints.


This week: Countless angels gather to praise the LORD (Dan 7:10) and the Lamb (Heb 1:6). "The Lamb" is Revelation's favoured title and image for Jesus Christ. Jesus is indeed a ruler (1:5) who stands amid the Menorah robed as high priest (1:13) as we heard in the reading from Revelation last week. He is "the first and the last" (1:17), "the holy one" (3:7), "Lord of lords and King of kings" (17:14)—but, overwhelmingly, Jesus is the Lamb.

The Lamb is "Christ crucified and risen, the one high priest of the true sanctuary, the same one 'Who offers and is offered, Who gives and is given'" (CCC 1137).

When John first sees the Lamb, he is actually looking for a lion. No one is able to open the seals of the scroll and reveal its contents, and John begins to weep. Then an elder reassures him, "Weep not; lo, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that He can open the scroll and its seven seals" (Rev 5:5).

John looks around for the Lion of Judah but instead sees the Lamb, not very mighty to behold, and this one is standing "as if slain" (Rev 5:6). This Lamb is Jesus, a sacrificial lamb, like the Passover lamb. The elders (presbyteroi, priests) then sing that Christ's sacrifice has enabled Him to break the seals of the scroll (the Old Testament) "Worthy are You to take the scroll and to open its seals, for You were slain, and by Your blood You ransomed men for God" (5:9). Heaven and earth then give glory to Jesus as to God: "To the One Who is sitting on the throne and to the Lamb be all praise, honour, glory and power for ever and ever!...and the elders prostrated themselves to worship." (5:13-14).

The Lamb is Jesus. As we learned last week, the Lamb is also a "son of man," robed as a high priest (1:13); the Lamb is sacrificial victim: the Lamb is God.

The Gospel According to St. John: I have written a detailed exposition on the Gospel of St. John which you can read here.

This week: the narrative revolves around Peter and the Beloved Disciple. In a fishing scene and at a meal Jesus reveals Himself to His disciples; He invites them to faith. The ease and intimacy of His meeting with them is reminiscent of their first meeting (Jn 1:37-39). But the disciples have difficulty in recognising Jesus (21:4,12) but it is unclear whether His identity is veiled because of the distance, the lingering darkness, or a dullness of spiritual insight. This is a constant theme throughout the Resurrection narratives in all the Gospels: the Lord is not immediately recognisable; it required some word or familiar gesture to make Him known. In this way we can understand that Jesus had not returned to life as before but had passed beyond death, to new life with God. He is Jesus—and yet He is different—transformed. Though Peter will be given the more important role (vv 7, 11) it is the Beloved Disciple who is sensitive in faith to the presence of the risen Jesus and recognises Him (v7).

The miraculous catch of fish, with its symbolic reference to 'fishers of men' (Lk 5:10), is summons to an apostolic mission. The number of fish hauled ashore is symbolic of the number of fish Greek zoologists had identified at the time the Gospel was written. At the lakeside breakfast Jesus 'took bread and gave it to them' (v13). His gesture answers the question of how Jesus remains present to His disciples: He is present among them as they share the Eucharistic meal.

Now Peter, who we recall, failed his Master in 18:15-27, is re-instated and entrusted with a pastoral mission. Peter is given a second chance to affirm his love for Christ in front of a fire after three times denying Him in front of a fire (18:15-18, 25-27). The dialogue in Greek makes use of several different synonymns: two separate nouns are used for sheep, and two different verbs for feed, know, and love. Although this may be a stylistic feature to avoid redundancy, others consider that it may be more significant, especially the verb love. In His first two questions, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him with a willing love (agapao), but in the third question He asks if Peter loves Him with mere friendly affection (phileo) which is the word Peter uses in all three of his responses. An intended distinction between these terms would indicate that Jesus, desirous of a complete and heroic love from Peter, was willing by the end of the conversation to settle for his friendship. Peter's story is one of calling, falling and recalling. It is noteworthy that he is entrusted with 'my lambs and sheep'. The Lord is, and remains 'the chief Shepherd' (1 Pet 5:4); there can be no other. Jesus does however, entrust to Peter the task of shepherding His entire flock. This supreme leadership position over the Church gives him a unique share in the authority of Christ, who is still acknowledged by Peter as the "chief shepherd" (1 Pet 5:4). It is important to recognise that no tension exists in the mind of Jesus between His own role as the "good shepherd" and the delegation of pastoral authority to Peter (Jn 10:11; CCC 553, 881). The First Vatican Council taught that in this episode, Christ made Peter the visible head and chief pastor over the universal Church.

Drawing them all together...

The word 'martyr means witness and apostle means one sent: combine the two and one has mission, the ministry of the Church founded on those who saw Christ risen and who received the Holy Spirit to go out and call the nations into the love and joy of God's kingdom. This is profoundly apostolic: the disciples are no longer frightened and hiding out in Galilee; they are boldly back in Jerusalem, and ironically, arrested for preaching. But they are able to proclaim redemption in Jesus to their persecutors: "We are witnesses to all this, we and the Holy Spirit." You get a real sense of the closeness of the Holy Spirit, a real known, familiar thing to them.

The antiquity and depth of this link with the Apostles is what we are deliberating today—and it is focused on the person of Peter. Acts and the Gospel make it quite clear that he had a central role of leadership. The wonderful story of Jesus' appearance on the shores of Tiberias emphasises all these points, looking back on aspects of His ministry, throwing new light on the past, bathing the old stories in new meaning, and projecting them forward into a dynamic future, the history of the body of believers, the Church. Jesus is now mysteriously and eternally present. He relives the call of the disciples, giving new meaning to His promise about "catching men". The dispels will catch a great number, like the 153 of their post-resurrection haul of fish, but this is now linked with the Lord's power, and His presence is revealed in the breaking of bread. Peter is to have a special role in caring for the people: the question Jesus asks him, He also asks us: "Do you love me? If you do, you will feed my sheep."

Faith and love in Jesus will issue forth in ministry. Witness means being sent, and being sent may well mean giving your life for Jesus. Jesus' witness is always paradoxical: the disciples' faith was countered by mention of death, transfigured by mention of Resurrection. Once this is achieved, there is to be suffering, even death for His followers. But this paradox is now glorious, and the Apostles leave the Sanhedrin "glad to have had the honour of suffering humiliation for the sake of His name". This marvel of reversal is bound up with faith in resurrection: we read new meaning in the Psalm and its promise of delivery from illness: "For me you have changed my mourning into dancing, O Lord my God, I will thank you for ever." This joy becomes a dynamic anticipation and celebration in the Book of Revelation, where a vast cosmic hymn of all living creatures praises the Lamb, His work, and its meaning. The 153 have become 10,000 x 10,000. There is glory in your and my final destiny: the Gospel message opens to a rich and glorious future!


Face of Jesus from the Shroud of Turin


Bibliography:

Baker, K., SJ, Inside the Bible, San Francisco: Ignatius, 1998.
Barret, C. K., Acts a Shorter Commentary, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2002.
Boadt, L., Reading the Old Testament, New York: Paulist Press, 1984.
Brown, R. E., An Introduction to the New Testament, New York, Doubleday, 1997.
Brown, R. et al (Ed) The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, (London: Chapman, 2000).
Catechism of the Catholic Church, New York: Doubleday, 1995.
Dodd, C.H., The Founder of Christianity, (London: Collins, 1978).
Duggan, M., The Consuming Fire, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1991).
Fuller, R.C., Johnstone, L., Kearns, C., A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, (London: Nelson, 1969).
Hahn, S., The Lamb's Supper (London: DLT, 1999).
Harrington, W. J., John: Spiritual Theologian (Dublin: The Columbia Press, 2007).
Ignatius Catholic Study Bible New Testament, Second Edition RSV, (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2001).
Kereszty, R., O. Cist., Jesus Christ—Fundamentals of Christology (New York: Alba, 2010).
Kreeft, P., You Can Understand The Bible, (San Francisco, Ignatius, 2005).
Letellier, R., Sunday & Feastday Sermons Cycles A, B, and C, (New York: St. Pauls, 2011).
Magnificat Monthly Vol. 3, No. 5/ March 2013.
McKenzie, J.L., Dictionary of the Bible, (New York, Touchstone, 1995).
Ratzinger, J., Introduction to Christianity, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2004).
Ratzinger, J., Jesus of Nazareth, (Bloomsbury, London, 2007).

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